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Ultimate Grammar Guide

Ultimate Grammar Guide

Here is a thorough guide to grammar regarding parts of a sentence and proper punctuation placements.  This will help you understand how to structure a sentence with the correct grammar usage as it is an area that a lot of people find challenging.  Take a look at our other useful resources on other area as you continue your research and studies in learning more about the English language.


Few subjects tend to strike fear into the hearts of English students like the technical terms for parts of a sentence.  For both native and non-native speakers, this is often the most tedious part of English education.  What we’ve tried to do with this guide is provide a simple guide to the basic technical terms, accompanied by equally simple examples.  We’ve also included some pointers for proper English usage.  Can I end a sentence with a proposition?  What’s the difference between “which” and “that?”  Is it OK to split infinitives?  The answers to those questions and more await.

–Determiners, Quantifiers, and Articles
–Predicates, Objects, and Complements
–Verbs and Verbals


Adjectives modify or further define a noun.  The three articles (a, an, the) are all adjectives.  Some adjectives are:

a small kitten
the poorest country in Latin America

Adjectives in English, as opposed to French or Spanish, precede the noun they modify.  So we talk about the black car or the flashing lights.  However, there are so-called “postpositive” adjectives that go after the noun.  These are generally derived from French or Latin roots.  Having often been adopted into English when French and Latin were the languages of international discourse, they often seem formal, institutional, or archaic.  Consider poet laureate, knight errant, body politic, or battle royal.

When a clause acts as an adjective, it is, unsurprisingly, called an adjective clause.  So when I talk about “my brother who lives in Queens,” who lives in Queens would be an adjective clause.  The noun is “my brother,” and the adjective clause modifies it.

If I have a string of words that modifies a noun, but doesn’t have a subject or a verb, it’s called an adjective phrase.  Take the preceding example.  If I take that adjective clause “who lives in Queens” and drop the subject (who) and the verb (lives), I get “my brother in Queens” and the adjective phrase is in Queens.

Sometimes adjectives express different degrees of modification.  There’s the positive degree: “the baron is rich.”  Beyond that is the comparative degree: “the duke is richer.”  And after that is the superlative degree: “the prince is richest.”  Sometimes this sequence of positive-comparative-superlative can be irregular.  For example, we have much / more / most and bad / worse / worst.

Adjectives are the spices of the language.  They’re great in small doses, but be careful.  Use too many, and your writing will be indigestible.  A few writers have gotten away with heavy use of adjectives– Thomas Wolfe, Arundhati Roy, and Marcel Proust to name a few– but most heavy users of adjectives just sound like they’re on ecstasy.


Adverbs are almost like meta-adjectives.  Whereas adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify verbs (she quickly fell asleep, adjectives (his house is incredibly big), or other adverbs (I ran very swiftly).  They often end in “-ly,” but as the example of very indicates, they don’t always.  Conversely, words ending in “-ly” aren’t always adverbs.  Think about words like “friendly” or “lovely.”

When a set of words containing a subject and a verb modifies an adverb, it’s an adverb clause, as in “I like to eat popcorn when I go to the movies.”

The adverb clause becomes an adverbial phrase when there’s no subject or verb: “I like to eat popcorn at the movies.”  Please note that “at the movies” is a prepositional phrase.  Prepositional phrases can function as adverbial phrases, as can infinitive phrases, as in “Dorothy went to look for the Wizard of Oz.”  But adverbial phrases can be neither prepositional nor infinitive, as in “I go surfing all the time.”

When adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs, they often express degree, as in “he is the most skilled mechanic” or “the battle was less fiercely fought.”  Adverbial phrases can be constructed to show equality or comparison as well, as in “that child is as quiet as a mouse.”

In addition to expressing degree, adverbs can place more or less emphasis on a word.  They can emphasize meaning (It’s really far away), amplify a word (I’m totally broke), or de-emphasize and soften meaning (this class is somewhat boring).

Adverbs, more than any other type of word, can move around in a sentence.  Compare:

Quickly, I ran home.
I quickly ran home.
I ran home quickly.

See?  Totally different placement, same meaning.  There is, however, a so-called “royal order” of adverbs and adverbial phrases, indicating how multiple adverbs can be placed in a sentence.  It goes VERB-ADVERB OF MANNER-ADVERB OF PLACE-ADVERB OF FREQUENCY-ADVERB OF TIME-ADVERB OF PURPOSE. So, for example, We walked (Verb) slowly (manner) down the street (place) every day (frequency) for five years (time) to go to the store (purpose).  There are exceptions to this, but the royal order is a good rule of thumb.

Keep in mind, however, that you can misplace an adverb quite easily.  Make sure that the adverb modifies the verb/adjective/adverb you want it to modify.  For example:

We ate the deer they’d hunted on the porch.

We can safely assume that the deer was not hunted on the porch, but the way this is currently phrased, they’d hunted on the porch modifies deer.  If we want to use the adverbial phrase hunted on the porch to modify ate, it would be best to split the sentence up, into “They hunted a deer.  We ate it on the porch.”

Sometimes adverbs can have an “-ly” form, but have a variation without an “-ly” form.  We can say “I walk slow” or “I walk slowly,” and it has the same meaning.  The primary difference is that the “-ly” lends a more formal tone to the sentence.  This is especially true when adverbs are used in numbering.  When you say “Firstly, there is no evidence to link A to B,” it sounds formal to the point of being archaic.

Adverbs are like adjectives in that they go a long way.  Heavy use of adverbs really tends to hamper and slow down a piece of writing.  This is doubly true when throwaway adverbs like “extremely,” “basically,” or “incredibly” are used.  Just say no to “basically,” kids.


A conjunction is a word that connects two parts of a sentence.  The best known are the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so.

When a conjunction connects two independent clauses (parts of sentences that could stand alone), it’s usually accompanied by a comma, as in “He didn’t like his job, but he needed the money.”  However, the comma isn’t always necessary: “I’m tired but I’m still at work.”  As a general rule, the briefer the sentence is, the less necessary the comma is.

There are two other situations when a comma is used with a coordinating conjunction.  The first involves “but.”  We use a comma with “but” when we’re elucidating a contrast, as in “I tried, but ultimately failed.”  A so-called “Oxford comma” can be used in coordination with “and” when listing three or more things, as in “I read untranslated versions of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Gide.”  However, this comma is being used less and less, and in periodicals is rarely present.

Their function as coordinating conjunctions would suggest (as would a million elementary school teachers) that “and” and “but” can’t be used at the start of a sentence.  However, in less formal contexts, they’re generally acceptable.  Even in academic papers, the pairing of a period and initial “and” can function as a pause for emphasis.

A subordinating conjunction is a conjunction that links a dependent clause to the rest of a sentence.  Some examples might be after, if, or until.  They could be used in sentences like:

We went to sleep after the campfire died down.
He won’t eat it if it has cilantro in it.
She waited until I got home.

Special note should be made of the subordinating conjunction that.  This is often thought of as unnecessary.  Sometimes a “that” can be eliminated without consequence, but other times a “that” acts as helpful signpost in the sentence.  For example, when I say:

My mother’s letter said that she was working on finding a new place in California and that she couldn’t stay in North Dakota another winter.

Notice how the two “thats” help to break up the sentence?

A correlative conjunction is a grammatical structure that involves a conjunction and another word, such as “Neither _____ nor _____” or “Not ____ but _____ “  Some examples:

That is neither here nor there.
Not only the most recent but the preceding eight prime ministers of Thailand were of Chinese ancestry.
Both Amy and Marina were at the concert.

Last, a conjunctive adverb is, as the name would imply, an adverb being used as a conjunction, such as however or consequently.  These indicate complex relationships between ideas.

Determiners, Quantifiers, and Articles

Cumulatively, determiners, quantifiers, and articles are the little adjectives that form the bolts of the English language: think about a tree, this house, your car, or several miles.  While these come almost instinctively to native English speakers, they are a serious source of headache for native Russian or Chinese speakers learning English.  There are a few reasons why determiners are listed as separate from adjectives; not only are they small and ubiquitous, they are much more hard-wired than adjectives.  While adjectives are constantly shifting, the determiners are far less likely to change anytime soon.

We’ll start with quantifiers, which can be divided into three categories.  There are those that work with count nouns (several books, a few books, many books), those that work with non-count nouns (much sadness, a little sadness), and those that work with either (no, some, enough).  Among quantifiers, we should distinguish between few/little and a few/a little.  The words “few” and “little” indicate a lack of or paucity of something, where as “a few” and “a little” indicate a small amount with out indicating lack.

Predeterminers are determiners that occur before other determiners.  These generally have to do with quantity or degree.  These include multipliers (I made double my previous salary after my promotion, the Belgian Congo was many times the size of Belgium), fractionals (Half the population of Saint Louis left in the decades following World War II, 750 milliliters is about a fifth of a gallon), and intensifiers (This is such a drag, What a mess!).  As the examples suggest, the intensifiers are best used in casual conversation or writing.

The articles are the, a, and an.  The is referred to as the “definite article,” and indicates either a) something referred to earlier on in the writing, b) an abstract concept, or c) a non-count or plural noun.  A and an are referred to as “indefinite articles.”  They are generally used to refer to singular or non-count nouns for the first time, while “the” is used subsequently.  A is used when the following noun starts with a consonant sound, whereas an is used when the following noun starts with a vowel sound.

In addition we could add that certain terms never take articles, such as languages, academic subjects, and sports.  To complicate matters, there’s a broad group of situations where there isn’t necessarily a preference for a definite article, indefinite article, or no article.  For example, consider most generic terms:

A Holstein is one of the highest-producing dairy cows you can breed.
The Holstein is a high-producing breed.
Holsteins are high-producing dairy cattle.

See?  While there are only three articles, that doesn’t mean that the rules for them are simple.  Rather, they’re highly contextual and difficult for many non-native speakers to apprehend.


Interjections are exclamatory, commanding statements.  They can be stand-alone sentences (That’s great!) or they can be embedded in larger sentences (Oh, just set it on the table).  Interjections are almost exclusively used in casual conversation or writing.


A noun is a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.  A proper noun is a specific person, place, thing, or idea system (like Hinduism, but not philosophy)  A noun clause is a group of words that functions as a noun that contains a subject and a verb, as in “She’s up by where the street curves.”  A noun phrase is a group of words that contains a noun (and often contains a noun) that functions as a noun such as a major river in Siberia or the out-of-the-ordinary.

Nouns can be count, mass, or collective.  A count noun is anything that can be counted, (a single book, four houses), a mass noun is anything that can’t be counted (air, matter), and a collective noun is any singular noun that represents a group of items (team, flock).  Please note that many words can be count, mass, or collective depending on their context within the sentence.  Contrast “I turned on the lights” (collective),  “There are two can lights in storage under the stage” (count), and “The room was full of light” (mass).

Many languages, like Russian and German, have extensive systems of noun cases, in which the noun changes depending on context.  Others, like Chinese and Thai, don’t change the noun at all.  English is somewhere in between.  We have three noun cases: the subjective, the objective, and the possessive.  With most nouns, proper and otherwise, the subjective and objective forms are the same, while the posssessive takes an ‘s at the end.  So we have:

Ellen lives in Seattle. (subject)
I went to visit Ellen. (object)
Ellen’s apartment is too small. (possessive)

This isn’t always the case though:

He ran to the store. (subject)
I gave him five bucks. (object)
Do you have his phone number? (possessive)

Furthermore, nouns often change when they become plural.  They usually acquire an -s (homes, boats) or an -es if the singular ends in -ch, -s, -x, -sh, or -z (taxes, kisses).  Sometimes, however, they don’t change at all (deer, crossroads), and sometimes they take on irregular forms (children, mice).

Things with nouns can get more complicated, so take a peek at the sections on objects and subjects for more detailed information.

Predicates, Objects, and Complements

A predicate is what finishes the sentence after the subject.  The subject is the star of the sentence (He, she, I, you, the rhinoceros).

The simplest kind of predicate is, appropriately enough, called the simple predicate.  It’s a verb, a verb phrase, or a compound verb (Stan fell, Stan fell down).  A compound predicate is a set of two or more connected predicates, as in “Stan fell down and broke his arm.”  A complete predicate consists of a verb, all modifiers on that verb, and whatever objects may be affected by a transitive verb (We can go have lunch at 12:30, You drove my car into a ditch?!).  A predicate adjective comes after a linking verb and discusses the subject (This apple tastes great, That movie was mediocre).  A predicate nominative also comes after a linking verb, but it’s a noun that tells us something about the subject (“Snow Country” was probably Yasunari Kawabata’s best novel, Portuguese is a beautiful language).

A direct object is a noun that receives action in a sentence (You already paid me, Marianne quit smoking cigarettes).  Be sure not to confuse the direct object with any object complements that may accompany the direct object.  An object complement refers to, describes, or modifies the direct object.  So in the sentence “They named their dog Charley,” dog is the direct object, while Charley is an object complement.

An indirect object is to or for whom a verb is performed.  The action of the sentence is received by the direct object; it affects or is for the indirect object.  So take the following three sentences:

Steve sold me his extra ticket.
Professor Singh gave her an A-.
Let’s give Juell a round of applause.

And it those sentences, the direct objects are, respectively, “his extra ticket,” “an A-,” and “a round of applause.”

We’ve mentioned complements earlier, and now we can go into a bit more depth on them.  A complement completes or clarifies a subject, object, or verb.  Consequently, there are three varieties:

Subject complements affect the subject, as in “The mountain is really tall” or “Mount Rainier is the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest.”  When the subject complement is an adjective, it’s referred to as a predicate adjective.  When it’s a noun it’s called a predicate nominative.

An object complement refers to, describes, or modifies the direct object, as in “That bike ride made me really tired” or “This is my sister Maria.”

Lastly, a verb complement completes a verb and thus can be a direct object (I’m eating pad thai) or a combination of a direct and indirect object (I gave my sister my keys).


A preposition relates two words in a sentence.  These words– such as “before,” “with,” or “by”– are often difficult to define.  Prepositions are almost always combined into prepositional phrases, which generally incorporate a preposition, a determiner, an adjective, and a noun or pronoun.  So, for example, a prepositional phrase would be “under (preposition) a (determiner) big (adjective) rock (noun).”  Prepositions, like determiners, are often extremely difficult for non-native speakers to grasp.  For example, in regards to time, we say “I’m meeting him at noon,” “He arrives on Monday,” and “He leaves in January.”  Despite the fact that these all deal with time, we use three different prepositions.  There’s no simple pattern for finding the appropriate preposition.

While it’s often said that it’s improper to end a sentence with a preposition– instead of “who’d you go to the movies with?” we’re supposed to say “with whom did you go to the movies?”– that rule is fast becoming outmoded.  While it’s probably inadvisable to end a sentence with a preposition in an academic paper, it’s perfectly fine in pretty much any other situation.


A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun or group of nouns.  Most of the time, these refer to previously mentioned nouns, known as antecedents.  So take this sample conversation snippet: “Mary’s at the store.  She ran out of eggs.”  Mary is the antecedent noun, while she is a pronoun.  Keep in mind that some pronouns, like everyone and everything don’t refer to antecedents.  These antecedent-free pronouns are referred to as indefinite pronouns.

Special note should be made of a common construction involving the pronoun “they.”  Here’s an example:

They say that swimming is the best exercise.

Who’s the antecedent for “they?”  There isn’t one.  Not only is this bad grammar, it’s usually indicative of lazy thought.  When people use a vague “they,” the predicate of the sentence is usually trite, unfounded, hearsay, or some combination thereof.

The personal pronouns are either first person, second person, or third person, can be singular or plural, and can be object case or subject case.  We’ve made a chart to help you out:

Subj. Singular    Subj. Plural    Obj. Singular        Obj. Plural

1st        I            We        Me            Us

2nd        You            You        You            You

3rd        He / She / It        They        Her / Him / It        Them

Note that when a pronoun gets connected to another noun, its case doesn’t change.  So we would say “I am leaving” or “Carl and I are leaving.”  The case of “I” remains the same, even if the 1st person singular becomes a 1st person plural.  When a pronoun and noun are used together, as in “we the people,” the case likewise remains unchanged.

Personal pronouns can also be derived from possessives.  This is called a nominative possessive.  There are four: mine, ours, yours, and theirs.  As with all pronouns, we use these in the same way as nouns (Your car is better than mine, Is this my scarf or yours?).

Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those, and such) convey relative distance and closeness between objects.  So when I say “this is my book,” I’m implying that the book is closer to me than when I say “that is my book.”  The same relationship exists between “these” and “those.”  “Such” as a pronoun refers to something just said.  However, it often sounds rigid or archaic.

Relative pronouns relate nouns and other pronouns to groups of words, as in “he who does not work does not eat” or “the region where Pinot Noir grapes grow best.”  These include the so-called indefinite relative pronouns (whoever, whomever, and whatever).  Their indefinite nature is pretty self-explanatory.  Consider a phrase like “do whatever you want.”  The relative pronouns also include “which” and “that,” two words that are notoriously misused.  As a rule of thumb, you can use “which” to introduce a parenthetical clause (a clause that’s unnecessary to the sentence).  For example, I could say “he lives in Tacoma, which isn’t very far away.”  “That” introduces information more essential to the sentence, as in “Sarah has a table that was made out of an old brewery floor.”  Notice that in that sentence, the clause that appeared after the “that” was critical to the meaning of the sentence.

Reflexive pronouns are used when the subject also functions as an object, as in “I hurt myself rock climbing” or “the two of them worked themselves through college at a screen door factory.”  The same forms are used for intensive pronouns, when a pronoun is used to emphasize a noun, as in “go to the sandwich shop and get yourself a footlong sub.”  We should note that in casual conversation, people sometimes substitute a reflexive pronoun for a personal one, referring to “myself” instead of “me” or “I.”  While this sounds grandiloquent, it’s incorrect.

The interrogative pronouns (who/what/where/when/which) introduce questions (Who is that? What are you doing?).  They can also be used to introduce noun clauses (I told you where to go, That isn’t what I heard).  The difference between “which” and “what” here is fairly subtle.  “Which” generally refers to specificities.  So if I ask “Which cars do you like?” I’m probably either asking what specific varieties of car you like, or asking which specific cars of a pre-established set you like.  If I ask “What cars do you like?” it’s a much more general question.  The answer could just as likely be sports cars, late ’60s Pontiac GTOs, or Dave’s sister’s orange GTO.

Finally, reciprocal pronouns (each other, one another) combine two closely related ideas in one sentence.  So, for instance, I could condense the rather lengthy, clumsy construction “Leah gave Neha a present.  Neha gave Leah a present” into the more concise “Leah and Neha gave each other presents.”


A subject is something that is doing or being something.  Most of the time, it’s at the beginning of the sentence.  Some sample subjects: Grammar isn’t all that tough, Ian went to the game last night.  The simple subject is the subject without modifiers.  Usually it’s one word (The new student is remarkably talented).  It can, on occasion, be more (What I’m working on is top secret).  Notice how in that last example, the whole clause functions as a single subject.

In a command or suggestion, the person the command or suggestion is directed at is often implied.  In a sentence like “Come back at 5:00″ there is no subject.  This is called the understood subject.

Be sure to know the difference between subject and agent.  The initiator of action in a sentence is referred to as an agent.  In an active sentence, the agent is the subject (We built a bonfire, The cat knocked over the vase).  In a passive sentence, the agent is not the subject (The vase was knocked over by the cat).

There are a number of other situations in which the subject follows the verb.  These include questions (Are you hungry?) and negative constructions (I’m not hungry, nor is Rashid).

Verbs and Verbals

Verbs express being or action.  Probably the most important classification of verbs is whether they are transitive or intransitive.  A transitive verb affects an object (I am a writer, They like borscht) whereas an intransitive verb can stand on its own without an object (The ladder fell, Do you smoke?).  Many verbs can be both (I already ate, I ate a piece of chicken).

We can also distinguish between verbs and verbals.  A verb, sometimes called a finite verb, can stand as the main verb of a sentence (I drove here, We aren’t very far).  A verbal, on the other hand, can’t be the main verb of a sentence (I want to be a chef, He is working).  For this reason, verbals, are sometimes called non-finite.

Verbs in English have four forms.  There is the base form (I talk), past form (I talked), present participle (I am talking) and past participle (I have talked).  “Talk” is a regular verb.  These four forms can be highly irregular, as with the word “do” (I do, I did, I am doing, I have done).

A copula is a verb that links a subject to its complement (This place is great, The stereo sounds too bass-heavy).  When a copula indicates a change, it’s called a resulting copula (The roof beams have rotted, she grew up fast.

We should also discuss auxiliary verbs, which function in coordination with other verbs.  Some of these change with the subject (I don’t work on weekends, he doesn’t work on weekends).  Others, known as modal auxiliaries, remain the same regardless of subject (I could go, He could go, They will try, She will try).

Verb mood refers to one of the three attitudes a speaker or writer has towards a sentence.  The indicative mood is the most common, and functions as a statement or question.  The imperative mood is used for commands or directives (Drive another two miles.  Get out of the way!).   The subjunctive mood is more complex.  It refers to sentences where part of the sentence feels bracketed off, such as a sentence that expresses a wish, a possibility, a speculation, or a comparison.  Some examples:

If there was no God, it would be necessary to invent him.
He acted as if he didn’t care.
My only wish is for the two parties to find some common ground.
I ask that you don’t tell anybody.

The present tense of the subjunctive uses the base from, and the past tense uses the same form as the indicative.

When a verb is paired with another word, usually a preposition and referred to as a particle, to make a phrase, the resulting construction is known as a phrasal verb (draw out, stand up, sit down).  The verb and the particle can be separated by other words (I wrote my ideas down, The actress broke her method down).  Because of their highly idiomatic nature, phrasal verbs can have diverse meanings.  When I say “He stood up” it means one thing; when I say “he stood me up” it means something radically different.

A factitive verb can take two objects, as in “I named my son Ryan.”  “My son” and “Ryan” are the two objects.

Causative verbs, as the name implies, cause another action to happen (We allowed our son to go to the football game with his friends, Ballet requires you to have great leg strength).  There are three verbs where a causative verb is followed by a base form rather than an infinitive.  They are “have,” “make,” and “let”  (My Mom made me shovel snow, The teacher had his students write brief autobiographies).

Verb tense shows us when in time a verb is happening.  The present tense indicates something currently happening (I am a teacher), the simple past tense indicates action in the past (I was a teacher), and the past participle indicates something happening before something else (I had been a teacher).  In most European languages, the verb is inflected in the future tense, but in English, we just tack on an extra word (I will be a teacher).

In addition, there are so-called progressive tenses, which are used when something is happening, and which incorporate the present participle verb form.  An example might be “I am doing my math homework.”

We should also discuss verbals.  One of the most common is the participle, which has two variations.  A present participle describes something that’s happening, and acts as an adjective (The screaming child, A snarling dog), while a present participle describes something that’s happened (A broken record, Two burnt pieces of wood).

Infinitives are another common verbal.  In many languages, such as Spanish and French, the infinitive is the standard verb form, but in English, we form infinitives by adding the word “to” to the beginning of a base form.  So we have “I want to sleep” and “She has to go to work soon.”  The so-called perfect infinitive describes something happening earlier than the verb that precedes the infinitive (I would like to have been an explorer if I’d lived in 16th Century Spain).  Many writers and teachers claim that infinitives should never be split– one should say “I try to smile frequently” instead of “I try to frequently smile.”  However, this rule is fast fading.  In most cases, you’re OK splitting an infinitive if the split form seems more graceful.  In academic writing, it’s probably best to keep the infinitive un-split.

The last verbal we’ll discuss is the gerund.  A gerund is a verb being used as a noun (Sarah went jogging, The doctor told me to stop drinking).  Gerunds and infinitives are often used similarly (I don’t like to study until after dinner, I don’t like studying until after dinner), infinitives usually have a more reflective or hypothetical tone than gerunds.



The apostrophe can stand in lieu of missing letters in a contraction.  For example, we can say can’t instead of can not, it’s instead of it is, or wasn’t instead of was not.  Sometimes it can exist in a contraction regardless of whether or not it replaces missing letters, such as won’t instead of will not.  And sometimes the apostrophe will replace missing numbers, like when we talk about the ’70s or having graduated college in ’08.  Contractions are questionable in academic prose, but nowadays all but the most grammatically conservative professors are OK with contractions.

Secondly, the apostrophe can indicate possession.  If the possessor doesn’t end in S, then the apostrophe fits between the last letter of the possessor and the S.  For example, we would write Emily’s house, the cat’s food dish, or the house’s chimney.  If the possessor ends in S (usually when it’s plural), then the apostrophe goes after the S.  So we would write Carlos’ backpack, the Coopers’ mailbox, or William Gass’ latest novel.  At first, the word its seems possessive, but it isn’t a noun with a possessive quality tacked onto it.  Rather, it’s a freestanding adjective that indicates possession, much like her or our.

Things get more complicated, but only slightly.  The apostrophe can indicate possession, but the possessed noun need not be there.  For instance, we can say my jacket, not my brother’s.

With compound nouns, the apostrophe comes after the whole compound noun.  For example, I could say your sister-in-law’s car.  Similarly, if we are referring to two possessors over a single possessed (even if that possessed is a plural), you would place the apostrophe after both possessors.  For example, Ellen and Michael’s cats are both sick indicates that Ellen and Michael have joint ownership of two cats.  However, if we were to say Ellen’s and Michael’s cats are both sick, that would imply that Ellen and Michael both have cats, and that both cats are sick.  There wouldn’t necessarily be any connection between Ellen and Michael.

Plurals are rarely indicated by apostrophes.  This makes intuitive sense to most people, except, mysteriously, when groups of capital letters or numbers are called into play.  So we could refer to a group of newly graduated PhDs or the rise of hip-hop in the 1980s, but we would not use an apostrophe.  The one time it’s advisable to use an apostrophe is when it’s unclear whether the word is a plural or something else.  Say I’m writing about the lower-case letter “i” in its mathematical context.  I could say “The i’s should be multiplied to produce -1.”  The apostrophe is necessary to distinguish i’s from the word is.


Brackets are most commonly used with quotations.  In a quote, we want to preserve the integrity of the quotation, but at the same time clarify what the quotation is referring to.  Brackets add context.  For example, we could write:

Professor Wilkins noted that “these are the sorts of economic issues led to
[former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarrak’s ouster.”

Another use of brackets involves indicate a misspelling in quoted material.  We put the word “sic” in brackets and italicize it.

The letter started with “Mom just got back from Switserland [sic].”

Brackets can also on occasion be used to establish editorial commentary on quotable material.

The Senator then suggested that “the three strikes law is necessary even
when no violent crime has been committed [italics added].”

“The association opposes the death penalty even in the most extreme
situations [emphasis theirs].”

Finally, brackets can be used as parentheses within parentheses.

Perec’s novels (of which there are more than 20 [although the line between
novel and nonfiction is blurry in Perec's case]) show a stunning virtuosity of

Keep in mind that this device can be obnoxious if misused, and if used at all, should be used sparingly.


The colon immediately precedes a list or explanation.  Unlike a semicolon, which introduces a related clause that could stand alone, or a comma, which separates a clause, a colon introduces a clause (We have one remaining option: initiate the self-destruct sequence, Don’t forget: Meet me at 3:00 sharp).  Perhaps the best guideline for how to use a colon as opposed to another punctuation mark is to ask if what comes before the colon gives  a good sense of what comes after the colon.  If so, than a colon is probably the best choice.

Similarly, it can be used to introduce a simple list (I have four children: Stephen, Andrew, Kate, Will).  Notice how in that last example, an “and” wasn’t inserted between the last two items in the list.  While a list in a conventional sentence requires an “and,” a list after a colon doesn’t.

The clause after the colon is capitalized under two circumstances: if it’s a quote (Vico’s ideas foreshadowed Hilary Putnam’s: “Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth) or if the clause before the colon is a short command (Remember: the first rule always supersedes the others).


The comma is perpetually misused.  Although it’s one of the most important punctuation marks, its seeming insignificance on the page makes it a regularly subject to neglect and abuse.

The most common use of the comma is in coordination with a conjunction to connect two independent clauses (I went to the beach, but David stayed at home).  With short sentences like that, the comma isn’t always necessary.  Sometimes the conjunction alone will do just fine.  But in academic prose, the comma is still advisable.

The comma is also used to separate three or more elements in a series (She went skiing with Noam, Henry, Nathan, and Catherine).  That last comma between the second-to-last element and the “and” is something of a point of contention.  It’s called an Oxford comma, and it’s often left out of periodical publications.  Frankly, it’s up to you whether or not to use it.  We just think it looks classy.

A comma can also be used to separate an introductory element from the rest of a sentence (Writing my book, I discovered how little I missed my old job).  Again, it might be acceptable under some circumstances to eliminate the comma if the sentence seems to flow better without it.  But if in doubt, keep the comma.

Parenthetical elements can be set off by a pair of commas.  These can be appositives (Chances were slim that Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, would face serious challenges) or they can contain linking words to the rest of the sentence (Songkhlanakarin University, which is also known as Prince of Songkhla University or Mor Or, is the largest university in Southern Thailand).  Absolute phrases are also treated as parenthetical (My old life behind me, I tried to assimilate in New York as quickly as possible) as are interjections (Keep in mind, of course, that casino gambling is designed for the house to come out on top).  On a related note, commas can express contrast (Contrary to popular belief, the North Korean juche state is best thought of as a unique construct, not Stalinist, not Confucian).

When one is using multiple coordinate adjectives, commas can be used to separate them (He’s an ugly, mean-spirited kind of guy).  However, they aren’t always used (I have an old French bicycle).

A comma is also a great way to introduce quotes.  One comma is needed to introduce a quote (As Polonius said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).  If the quote is being split in two, then two commas are necessary (“I don’t know,” said Lauren, “if the problem is you or me).  For longer quotes, however, it’s better to use a colon.

Perhaps the most common comma error is the comma splice.  This occurs when a comma is used in lieu of a semicolon, period, or conjunction to separate two independent clauses as in “I went to the beach yesterday, it was OK.”  While this is often cited as a common punctuation error, it’s better thought of as indicative of a larger error.  Commas in general are overused, and one is better-advised to be sparing with them.


A dash sets off a parenthetical clause, and conveys a stronger sense of separation than a comma (It took the combined forces of all three major ethnic groups in French Indochina– Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao– to oust the colonial forces).  Commas are generally preferable to dashes, but dashes are able to separate out parenthetical clauses more effectively, and thus help to make writing more fluid and elegant.

While it’s common in creative and informal writing to include dashes to show pauses, this use is probably best left out of academic prose.


The ellipsis indicates a pause, a trail off, or a gap in thought.  It’s a floaty little device, lending an impressionistic air, and for this reason it’s been a favorite of poets and an online chat staple.

However, it has but one major use in academic writing, and that is to indicate an omission in a quote (According to an editorial in the New York Times, “A group of left-leaning Latin American thinkers and leaders… have presented a serious challenge to the Monroe Doctrine tradition”).  Ellipses are rarely used at the beginning of a quote.

Exclamation Point

The exclamation point ends a command (Stop that!) or interjection (Wow!).  An exclamation mark in parentheses can serve to emphasize shock, as in “That’s when she told me that David Lynch (!) was going to be there,” but this is an especially slangy use.  Writers are split over the appropriateness of pairing a question mark with an exclamation point (known as an interrobang), but we feel it’s awfully good at conveying a mixture of shock and confusion.

The exclamation point is never appropriate for academic prose outside of a quote.  However, it’s quite common in magazine journalism.


The hyphen is used in situations where the boundaries between words start to blur.  Opinions on hyphenation are as diverse as opinions on commas, so there may be some variation on these rules depending on the style guide you choose.

Compound words utilize hyphens (out-of-date, well-known).  With a number of phrases, it’s questionable whether or not they are phrases or compound words.  We could speak of “Heidegger’s being-in-the-world” or “Heidegger’s being in the world” with equal authority.  All numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine are compound words, as are most fractions (five-eights, two-thirds).  However, when we speak of halves and quarters, some writers use hyphens, others don’t.  Certain prefixes also take hyphens (ex-wife, self-preservation).  Hyphens can also be used in suspended compounds, where the compound word is split up (This graphing program can model one-, two-, and three-dimensional objects).

Hyphens are also used at the end of a line, right before a line break.  So we could split up a word like “antiestablishment” at the end of a line by writing “anti-” at the end of one line and “establishment” at the beginning of the next.  The rules for this are conflicting and complex.  Furthermore, in the era of the modern word processor, this rule has become moot.  We suggest you save yourself the headache and ignore this.


Parentheses are used when you want to include material that can be passed over and could interrupt sentence flow, but that you still want to include.  The reason we’ve chosen parentheses in this guide is because we want the examples to stand separate from the sentence.  Here’s another example:

I drove from Portland (where, incidentally, my college boyfriend still lives) to Seattle in just under three hours.

If commas can set off a phrase, and if dashes can function as super-commas, parentheses are the last step before a phrase is excised completely.


The primary use of the period is to end a sentence.  Traditionally, one would end start a new sentence with two spaces, but many modern writers and grammarians consider this to be a holdover from the typewriter era.

Periods also can end commands.

Please don’t smoke in my office.
Keep your chin up.

And periods are used to end indirect questions.

I’ve wondered about that.
He asked me if we could ship it express.

Periods are used for many abbreviations as well, as in Washington, D.C. or the U.S.A.  If a sentence ends in an abbreviation (as that last one did), a second period isn’t used.  Certain abbreviations don’t require periods, such as NAACP.  Abbreviations where the abbreviation is far more common than the abbreviated, such as CBS for Columbia Broadcasting System or NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, almost never take periods.

Question Mark

The question mark is primarily used at the end of a direct question.  We’ve discussed the interrobang (?!) earlier, so we’re going to focus on the solo question mark.  It can be used in tag questions as well, where a questioning phrase is tacked onto a declarative statement (It describes Céline’s experiences in World War I, does it not?).  However, the question mark will not be used with an indirect question (She asked me if I wanted an ice cream cone).

When a question turns into a series of brief questions, a staccato pattern often emerges with multiple question marks (Have you read Walter Benjamin?  Trakl?  Celan?  Adorno or any of the Frankfurt School?).

Unlike the exclamation point, the question mark is as acceptable in academic prose as it is in street speak.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are used whenever spoken or written language is quoted.  In American English (but not in the Britain or the Commonwealth states), commas and periods go inside quotation marks regardless of context.  So even if a period wasn’t used in the original quote, a period would still be placed inside the quotation marks if that quote is at the end of a sentence.  Quotes can be additionally set off with a comma (Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”), a colon (He uttered a line from Ginsberg: “I’m with you in Rockland!”), or can stand without additional punctuation in a sentence (I know it’s a cliche, but I really do perceive that “the glass is half full”).

With quoted dialogue, each new line forms a new paragraph.  When one is quoting multiple paragraphs, each paragraph should start with a quotation mark, but only the last quoted paragraph should end with a quotation mark.

The names of short stories, articles, and poems are indicated by quotation marks (full books take underlines or italics), as in “Harrison Bergeron” or “Song of Myself.”  The other primary non-quote use of quotation marks is when we want to lend a sense of peculiarity to a word (She called me a “schlemiel”) or suggest that its use is somehow facetious (Yeah, I got a “job” frying chicken for the colonel).

While single quotes are increasingly popular, their only proper grammatical use is in a situation where quotation marks would normally be used inside another quotation (He said “She said ‘That’s what everyone’s saying’”).


A semicolon is primarily used to separate two independent clauses that could be separated with a sentence, but that are close enough that the writer wants to show continuity between them (Cheryl took a train to Vienna; she had a sister there she hadn’t seen in 20 years).

The semicolon can also be used to separate out elements in a large series (Yellow-shirt leaders included Sondhi Limthongkul, media tycoon and NPP founder; Chamlong Srimuang, former mayor and Santi Asoke leader; Phipob Thongchai, activist; and Kasit Piromya, foreign minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government).


The slash functions roughly as a substitute for the word “or.”  Hence, we get phrases like pass/fail option, yes/no question, and indoor/outdoor cat.  Some authors use the terms he/she, his/her, and him/her in the interests of gender neutrality.  These should probably be avoided in academic prose, and replaced with he or she and similar constructions.

The slash can also be used to indicate line breaks in quoted poetry (“A narrow Fellow in the Grass / Occasionally rides –”).